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Symbol and their meaning: the owl

Symbol and their meaning: the owl

02 Jun 2015
Owls are enigmatic birds that have always captivated humankind. First associated with the night, synonymous for the unknown and for mystery, they are surrounded by various legends and have a strong symbolic representation. Since ancient times, the representation of the owl have been strongly related to wisdom, philosophy and intuitive knowledge. Is it also the case in other cultures? Let us see today, through its history and its origins, the symbolism of the owl.
Symbolism of the owl

Let’s first note that the owl is the generic name given to species of nocturnal raptors, which includes about 200 species.

Two species of owls

The owl, a bird revered in many cultures

The symbolism of the owl has been widely exploited in Ancient Greece. It was introduced in the legend of Athena and became one of her most famous attributes (Minerva to the Romans).
Indeed, Homer already associated the bird to the goddess, highlighting the sharp and clear flame of its eyes. The name of owl, in Greek Glaux, is likely to be explained by the general notion of Glaucus, namely this glow present in the sky, the sea and at night in the eyes of the owl, a very common animal at that time. So the owl quickly became associated with this great goddess and, by extension, to the symbolic expression of the city of Athens. It has also given the name of "owls" to Athenian coins, especially tetradrachm, from the late sixth to the first century BC because the bird was represented on the reverse of the coins. In many current institutions (schools, universities), the owl is also part of the heraldic arms.

Athenian tetradrachm representing Athena and on the reverse an owl.

In Greek mythology, Athena, daugther of Zeus, is the goddess of wisdom and intelligence. As an attribute of the Deese, the owl takes her symbolic. It is also regarded as a prophetic bird. In a famous representation, the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) made the owl the symbol of philosophy: "The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk."
Goddess of reason, Athena also became councilor of gods and mortals, who were regularly uses his intuition and ingenuity.
The symbolism of the owl is so largely associated with the dominant characteristics of the personality of Athena: intuition, intelligence and farsighted (piercing gaze), knowledge and wisdom (by its quiet stillness), but also fearsome and unpredictable energy (raptor).

Athena with an owl, greek statue, 450 BC.

In Celtic folklore, the owl has a good position because it is considered as both sacred and reputed to have magical powers, because of its capacity to act in the dark.

For Welsh, the owl is a nocturnal predator - the only bird capable of defeating the fast falcon at dusk. The owl symbolizes death and revival, wisdom, magic of the moon and initiations. The Goddess Arianrhod changes appearance and becomes a large owl that, through his sharp eyes, sees even in the darkness of the unconscious and in the human soul.

Among the Zulus and other countries in West Africa, the bird is reputed to have a powerful influence to cast spells. People also think that the use of owl feathers gives great strength to a person involved in magical incantations.

In Navajo beliefs, the owl is the messenger of the supernatural world and earthbound spirits. The Pawnee considers the owl as the leader of the night and believes it provides protection. The Cherokee honors the sacred bird because of its night vision and wishes to draw its power to see in the dark.

Owl Personalized Ring, Vulcan Market, on sale on Jweel

But a dreaded symbol too

However, many cultures have focused on the dark side of the symbolism of the owl. Since immemorial time, people have always been wary of the owl is because of the fear of the dark, or the night and mysterious things that might inhabit it. In general, the hooting of an owl is considered a harbinger of death or bad luck and may even prophesy death. Statistically, more people die in the night, and for this reason the owl was also regarded as the messenger of death.
For the Greeks, certain species of owls were considered as birds of darkness. Indeed, the Greek personified it into the sinister son of Acheron and Orphné, namely the Dark. He was changed into an owl by Demeter after seeing her daughter Persephone eating a pomegranate seed in the garden of Hades, the god of darkness and death. The bird is thus present in some representations of the underworld and Latin poetry gives him the name of feralis, funereal.

In Egypt, it expressed the cold, the night, and also death. But paradoxically, the owl is also a great symbol of wisdom and knowledge. Indeed, it  is also a guide through the underworld, a creature with sharp eyesight in the dark, and a silent and fast raptor

For Christians, the owl traditionally meant the Devil, the powers of evil, bad news, destruction. Similarly, in the Old Testament, the owl is an impure creature and a figure of desolation.
In the Middle Ages, the owl was associated with deception and sorcery. Indeed, people were considering the raptor’s capacity to see in the dark and to wait for the night to hunt, when its preys are often "blind" and helpless. In some popular legends from Germany and Scandinavia, the owl is considered a forest spirit (Holzweibl). His nocturnal character also gives it an evil connotation: it is often represented as the pet of witches. To nail owls to the doors of houses was therefore a custom intended to preserve from the bad luck and evil spirits.

In Australian Aboriginal myth the owl is the messenger of bad news. Yama, the God of death, sometimes sends an owl as an emissary.
Native Americans consider the owl as the bird of sorcerers because of its association with the dark. It symbolizes deception and silent observation because it flies quietly. The owl is feared by many people who believe that the death warning is in its hooting.

This double aspect is present in popular belief in Japan, where the owls are positive or negative symbols according to their species. The barn owls are demonic while the tawny owls are rather considered as messengers of the gods. They are intermediaries between gods and men.

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